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Group shuns government on spam

A leading online industry group opposes legislation to restrict junk email, even though many of its members staunchly oppose spam.

A leading online industry group today came out against federal legislation to restrict unsolicited email, even though many of its members staunchly oppose spam.

The Interactive Services Association (ISA) released a policy paper that endorses the use of email blocking technologies, combined with antifraud enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission, instead of congressional action.

"[Spam] is the No. 1 consumer complaint among the companies we represent. But we think that any legislation in the area of unsolicited email is premature now," Brian O'Shaughnessy, director of public policy for the ISA, said today.

"Commercial speech on the Internet is free speech. It's a very slippery slope once you start regulating speech," he added.

The ISA's more than 300 members include America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy, all of which battled in court to block junk email from the online marketer Cyber Promotions.

Opposition to junk email legislation began mounting two weeks ago at the FTC's Net privacy workshops. During a session about junk email, FTC commissioner Christine Varney asked the three online services to work with Cyber Promotions and other spam firms on a plan that would to give consumers more power to block unwanted bulk mailings.

Although the parties agreed to meet, the most well-known spammer, Sanford Wallace (a.k.a Spamford), was surprised by the ISA's policy.

"I think this is pretty ironic," he said today. "This is a very positive development that the service providers agree we can work out this issue together before the government steps in and eradicates the whole industry, before self-regulation is given a chance."

There are three bills moving through Congress now to ban or limit spam. For instance, Rep. Chris Smith's (R-New Jersey) legislation would totally ban unsolicited mass emails by amending the federal law prohibiting junk faxes. Sen. Frank Murkowski's (R-Alaska ) bill would require spammers to label messages "advertisements" and include the senders' accurate contact information, including physical address and phone. It also requires that ISPs help customers filter spam.

The ISA says it is against both bills because they are too broad and could violate free-speech rights. The ISA has yet to take a stance on Sen. Bob Torricelli's (D-New Jersey) spam bill, which gives the FTC more authority to bust spammers that don't give an opt-out preference. But AOL helped draft the bill and has obviously proclaimed its support of the effort.

Still, the ISA isn't convinced that technological solutions are foolproof. That's why it is calling on the FTC to keep its promise to crack down on spammers that, for example, circumvent blocks or deceive consumers with false email headers.

"Unsolicited email clogs servers, causes outages, and can be an administrative nightmare for technology infrastructures," O'Shaughnessy said. "It's a game of cat and mouse for ISPs. For all the technologies they implement, spammers are a step ahead of them the moment the solution is devised."

Some say the ISA isn't taking the high road to protect free speech but to safeguard members' business interests.

"These people may have a vested interest in doing commercial bulk emails down the road, so they want to keep the door open. The online services want to sell their customer base to legitimate advertisers," said Scott Hazen Mueller, founder the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, which held Rep. Smith draft his sweeping antispam legislation.

Mueller is also the vice president of engineering for Whole Earth Networks, whose president is a member of the ISA.

"Our companies' diverse interests represent the conflict going on in the industry," he added.